Okay, I just saw this commercial on Headline News (I think it was). This is not the full-length version, unfortunately. But it’s the only version I could find online. Anyway, this commercial completely backfired on me. I saw this business lunch going on, then one guy offering to pay for everyone’s meal with his credit card. The camera shows the card which has a orange spiderman-like superhero on it. At this point, my reaction was, “That’s great! This commercial is going to be some statement about how we need to not take ourselves too seriously. Cool!” At that point, the audience doesn’t know it’s an American Express commercial.
But what happens instead is that the guy’s clients dis and ridicule him for his “Kindergarten card”, suddenly speaking in German to each other, presumably because they know their host does not understand German. They smile hypocritically and retreat from the table, presumably never to do business with him again. But what’s worse is that they are the ones acting childishly by ganging up on and shaming him, all in effect “behind his back.”
But what’s even worse than the shaming (if there is anything worse than shaming) is that he is shamed for having a superhero on his credit card. And in asking myself why the advertisers chose that particular image (of a superhero) with which to ridicule this young (thirties-ish) white guy, I remembered my post last year on Brad Paisley’s song “Online” and my friend Michael Faris’ comment that Paisley’s song included
a thinly veiled defense of masculinity. We’re meant to laugh at this guy who can’t seem to get manhood “right”: socks with sandals, a crappy car, living with his parents, not “scoring” with women, and he uses an inhaler (and of course, the ideal of masculinity is a heterosexual, able-bodied stud).
And I thought, Of course!This commercial too seems another attempt, though in this case a LESS thinly veiled one, to shame this small business owner for failing to play mature and serious like the masculine “big guys,” by clinging to his nerdy love of comic books and superheros. It’s the “cool” versus the “nerdy,” basically.
Then I checked the Capitol One Card Lab advertisements, like this one (below), which this American Express commercial is obviously trying to counter. But there Capitol One is also using a traditional masculinity to create the humor, the contrast between the super-macho (and comic-book-like!) military commander and his desire for kittens on his credit card.
So both commercials are using macho masculinity to make their points. The Capitol One advertisement wouldn’t be funny if we weren’t meant to assume that muscular and authoritarian military men do not love kittens. But at least that commercial, while it depends on us buying into the masculine stereotype, at least it plays with that stereotype a bit.
The American Express advertisement, though, is horrible. It makes failure to be “masculine” enough something to be shamed and scapegoated. The commercial dramatizes in miniature what happens around the world in tons of situations when one person or group do not fit the conceptions of what is acceptable to the dominant group: they get shamed and dismissed. And what’s worse, again — is that the dominant group does this by ganging up on the shame-ee. It’s very disgusting.
But, yeah, I think that’s what’s going on in this commercial. The American Express advertisers are showing more than they realize. And even if few people recognize consciously this scapegoating and shaming mechanism, the commercial still simply doesn’t work, does it. Does anyone out there think this commercial works at all, to make anyone WANT to have an American Express card? At least the Capitol One commercial was funny, even as it used stereotypes of masculinity to create the humor. AND, like I said, hopefully, that humor might create a fissure in the stereotype, and weaken it?
Either way… this American Express commercial completely backfired on me. It’s arrogant, mean, disgusting, and obviously so. I mean, even if audiences don’t realize the attempt to shame the man for not being “masculine” enough, even so — the commercial just doesn’t work. Gees, at least I HOPE it doesn’t work for anyone!